The Democratic Party has a lot going for it right now. An energized base of supporters in cities and suburbs, a more diverse freshman class in Congress to mix up the agenda, interesting likely candidates for President, and a shared focus on defeating President Donald Trump.
It is easy to see why, in the age of Trump, the debate about who should be the next nominee is primarily about who can beat Trump.
The questions many are asking go something like this: Does the nominee need to be a white man to reach voters the Democrats lost in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016? Does the nominee need to be a woman or an African-American to energize key parts of the Democratic base who turned out in record numbers in the 2018 midterms?
What kind of candidate, on paper, can bring an end to Donald Trump in the White House?
But these are the wrong questions. And they reflect the approach that has led the Democratic Party to nominate losing candidates. The belief that Trump has changed everything, while understandable, is a misconception.
Instead of asking what kind of candidate can win, the question should be: What makes a good President?
What are the qualifications or, more critically, the qualities we should look for in a nominee? And who has them? The fundamentals of these qualities have not changed, but the way we understand them and the public hopes and expects to see them has changed.
Finding the right Democrat to run is not about out-Trumping Trump. Democrats can't and shouldn't compete with the anger and the divisiveness that have run through the veins of the Trump campaign and presidency.
If Democrats are going to win in 2020, they need to go back to basics and look for the person with the intangible qualities needed to serve as an effective President. They need to find the optimistic antidote to Trump's divisive, destructive style of governing.
It sounds simple, and perhaps quaint these days, but one of the most important qualities we need in a President is honesty. Not the "aww shucks" kind, but the kind where our President is not afraid to tell the American people what is happening in our economy and in our global engagements, not afraid to share views that aren't politically popular, and not afraid to admit mistakes.
We saw this quality in Congressman Beto O'Rourke when he gave a candid answer at a town hall meeting on the NFL controversy about kneeling during the National Anthem. He didn't offer poll-tested language; he spoke from the heart about what he actually believed. His honesty is one reason he has quickly emerged as a Democratic frontrunner, although he narrowly lost his Senate race in Texas. He is authentic and inspiring and says what he thinks. And more than anything, that is what inspires people to follow a leader.
An underrated but essential quality in a President Is empathy. It may seem foreign in this current environment, but an effective President feels the struggles and challenges facing the American public and then does something about them.
We have seen this quality in former Vice President Joe Biden time and time again. After experiencing unimaginable tragedy, with the loss of his wife and infant daughter and later his son, he turned his grief into an incredible capacity to comfort others -- a quality that is called upon often for Presidents after a school shooting, a hurricane or any unpredictable moment when the country looks to the Commander in Chief.
Sen. Cory Booker has this quality, as well. He may have gone too far in his self-promotional pronouncements at the Senate confirmation hearings on Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but his time as Mayor of Newark led him to be a fierce and vocal advocate for criminal justice reform, long before it was an issue with real bipartisan potential.
And there may be a healthy debate within the party about the impact of trade, but Sen. Sherrod's Brown's passionate defense of Ohio workers speaks to his empathy as well, and to the years he has spent in office representing towns where the closing of a factory has been devastating.
The job of running the United States requires not just a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the world as it has been, but also a curiosity about where the world is going and a willingness to take a fresh approach to the challenges we are facing as a country.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren had a serious fumble over the release of her DNA. But years ago, she also had the bold idea for addressing consumer woes long before Bernie Sanders ever ran for President.
Warren was still a Harvard Law School professor when she came up with the idea for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She pushed forward an idea that eventually became not just law, but an entirely new federal agency dedicated to defending consumers. That was before she ever was in public office.
Running for President is tough, but being President requires a superhuman level of tenacity. There is a number of potential candidates, mostly women, who have shown they have the guts.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Kavanaugh would not have been as pointed and tough without the dogged questioning of Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. Neither gave an inch beneath the stares of the all-male and all-white Republican side. They asked smart, incisive questions and in Klobuchar's case, and stood firm in the face of aggressive personal questioning from the nominee.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got her start in electoral office by running for the US House of Representatives against a popular longtime incumbent in a district in New York that had not gone for a Democrat in decades. She pushed her way to the top of the pack without the initial help of the national party and not only won the seat, but quickly emerged as a rising star. After being named to the Senate to fill Hillary Clinton's seat when Clinton became Secretary of State, she later won the seat in a special election -- and soon took on the military to hold them accountable for dealing with rampant cases of sexual assault. All of that displays another essential quality for a President -- courage.
These candidates, and many not mentioned, have strengths and flaws. While a long primary process is exhausting to everyone involved, it allows for candidates to rise and fall. And the prism through which we should judge each candidate in the 2020 presidential race is how they exhibit these core human qualities: honesty, empathy, curiosity, tenacity and courage.
Democrats have come too far to be stuck still in entrenched factions and the false perception that an African-American woman can't represent white men, or a white man can't represent African-American women. All wings of the party have more in common than they have differences, especially when compared with Trump.
The debate needs to move beyond all this, because picking a presidential candidate is just not about what is on paper, or which nominee looks the part. It is about who embodies those intangible qualities that not only make a good human being, but also a great leader.
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